Test-ocratic Merit vs. Democratic Merit?

What are the benefits of a college education in a diverse democracy? Research indicates that these benefits include the ability to strengthen critical thinking, to provide students with the capacity for leadership, problem-solving, and creativity, and to strengthen social agency and pluralistic orientation for careers and citizenship in a global society. Yet is the inordinate emphasis on college entrance aptitude tests really a measure of merit and of the abilities of potential college students to develop these needed competencies?

Lani Guinier’s new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) describes how higher education has drifted from a mission-driven to an admission-driven system, focused almost exclusively on the predictive value of the SAT-type tests for success in the first-year of college. In fact, as she notes, the SAT only has a modest correlation with freshman-year grades, whereas grades in the four years of high school are a much stronger predictor of academic success. Guinier asserts that the SAT’s most reliable value is as a proxy for wealth in its norming to white, upper-middle class performance, as shown by the average SAT test scores based on ethnicity.

Alluding to the “Volvo effect” in Andrew Ferguson’s book, Crazy U Professor Guinier refers to the inordinate amount of funding and effort placed by wealthy parents on preparing their children for college entrance exams. As she explains, “Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society” (p. 26). As a result, she calls for a culture shift in terms of how we evaluate merit in terms of “democratic values” rather than “testocratic machinery.”

An important insight from this thought-provoking book is that democratic merit within an institution of higher education is defined by context. As such, the definition of merit crystallizes the mission and purposes of the institution and necessarily involves choices about which characteristics of the applicant pool are valuable. This definition is particularly germane to discussions about affirmative action in the wake of the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin Supreme Court case that will be reheard this fall on appeal.

In the Fisher ruling, the Supreme Court has determined that colleges and universities must exhaust race-neutral alternatives before consideration of race-conscious factors in a holistic admissions process. Guinier indicates that Fisher and other affirmative action opponents have singled out race, before any other admissions criterion such as musical ability or athletic accomplishment, as undeserving of consideration. A perhaps unintended benefit of the Court’s ruling, however, is that colleges and universities must proactively re-examine their mission statements for the ways in which these statements articulate the importance of diversity. As Alvin Evans and I point out in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward (Jossey-Bass, 2015) the Fisher decision brings the institutional context for diversity into the foreground, since a college or university’s specific rationale for a diverse student body needs to be framed in the context of mission, vision, and values statements.

In Guinier’s view an “obsessive culture of testing” obscures the emphasis on developing student potential and results in institutions that lack meaningful race and class diversity. From this perspective, the attainment of democracy learning outcomes in the undergraduate experience cannot rely on a single, weak predictor of first-year success such as the SAT, but instead requires an educational focus consistent with institutional mission that nurtures individual talent and fosters the access and success of a diverse student body.

Least Equal States: New Mexico, Arizona at Top

Matt Bruenig at Demos has spreadsheet/map (disposable income) of least egalitarian states, with the most inegalitarian ten all in South and Southwest, with New Mexico, Arizona, California in the top three. He concludes thus about the ventiles (ventile=1/20)and percentiles (see @billmon1 for nice map):

Mississippi is quite poor. In both equivalized and per capita income, Mississippi is in last or second-to-last place for every ventile except the 5th percentile in equivalized income where it is in third-to-last place.

New Hampshire outperforms everywhere except the top. In both equivalized and per capita income, New Hampshire is ranked number one at every ventile until you get to the 70th or 75th percentile, at which point it gives way to New Jersey and Connecticut. Even at the higher percentiles, however, New Hampshire remains in the top 5 or 6 states.

Vermont is the most equal. In both equivalized and per capita income, Vermont has the lowest P90/P10 ratio, the second-to-lowest P90/P50 ratio (behind Minnesota), and the lowest P50/P10 ratio.

New Mexico is the least equal? In equivalized income, New Mexico has the highest P90/P10 ratio, the highest P90/P50 ratio, and the second-to-highest P50/P10 ratio (behind Arkansas). In per capita income, New Mexico has the highest P90/P10 ratio, the highest P90/P50 ratio, and the fourth-to-highest P50/P10 ratio (behind Mississippi, Louisiana, and Oklahoma in that order).

The Untold Story of the Moynihan Report

The 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report has unleashed another round of contentious debates between critics and defenders of the report. For all the sound and fury over half a century, as far as I know nobody has asked the obvious question: what prompted Daniel Patrick Moynihan to undertake a study of “the Negro family” in the first place? After all, Moynihan was a political scientist with a Ph.D. in International Economics, who at the time was a young and obscure assistant secretary in the Department of Labor. What did he know about “the Negro family” and what relevance did this have for his work at the Department of Labor? And where did Moynihan find the intellectual fodder for his report on “The Negro Family”?

“Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant on the Watergate break-in, famously told Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters for the Washington Post, to “follow the money.” The academic equivalent of this dictum is to “follow the endnotes.” The name that keeps popping up in the 61 endnotes to the Moynihan Report is Nathan Glazer, Moynihan’s co-author of Beyond the Melting Pot, published two years earlier. Actually, Moynihan only wrote the chapter on “The Irish.” Glazer wrote the chapters on “The Negroes,” “The Jews,” “The Italians,” and “The Puerto Ricans.” The theoretical framework for the book, reflecting Glazer’s imprint, forebode an evolving discourse around a culture of poverty that putatively prevented poor blacks from lifting themselves out of poverty. Stripped away of its obfuscating language, Beyond the Melting Pot shifted the focus of analysis and public policy away from the societal institutions that produce and perpetuate racial inequalities, and instead located the causes of poverty on the poor themselves. As Moynihan wrote in the report:

At this point, the present tangle of pathology is capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world. The cycle can be broken only if these distortions are set right.

Let us review the Glazer endnotes in sequence:

Endnote #3. At the outset of the Report, Moynihan splices the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of results, attaching the following endnote: “For a view that present Negro demands go beyond this traditional position, see Nathan Glazer, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism,” Commentary (December 1964), pp. 29-34.

Endnote #5. In the body of the report, Moynihan quotes Glazer as follows: “The demand for economic equality in now not the demand for equal opportunities for the equally qualified: it is now the demand for equality of economic results . . . The demand for equality in education . . . has also become a demand for equality of results, of outcomes.” Reference is again to Glazer’s 1964 article, “Negroes and Jews: The Challenge to Pluralism.” Elsewhere in that article Glazer, says flat-out that black demands for preferential hiring and the rhetoric of equal results constitute a threat “to the kind of society in which Jews succeeded and which Jewish liberalism considers desirable.” Hence, the subtitle: “The Challenge to Pluralism.”

Endnote #7. In the report, Moynihan writes that “important differences in family patterns surviving from the age of the great European immigration to the United States” account for “notable differences in the progress and assimilation of various ethnic and racial groups.” The source? Glazer’s analysis of Jews and Blacks in Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge 1963), pp. 290-291.

Endnotes #12, 13 and14 refer to Glazer’s Introduction to a controversial book by Stanley Elkins, Slavery (1963), in which in which Elkins compares slavery to the concentration camps in terms of the psychic damage inflicted upon its victims. Glazer cites the prevalent depiction of the slave in the South as “childlike, irresponsible, incapable of thought or foresight, lazy, ignorant, totally dependent upon his master, happy.” However, the stereotype and the factual reality of this designation are fuzzy, and the reader is left to wonder if Glazer is implying, albeit with scholarly circumspection, that the cultural legacy of slavery and the damage it inflicted on “the black psyche” is part of the reason that black children do poorly in school today.

Endnotes 18, 19, and 20 refer to Glazer’s Foreword to a new edition of E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States. Glazer contends that Frazier’s 1939 book “has lost nothing in immediacy and relevance.” However, he selects passages that serve his argument concerning the dysfunctional black family, and blurs the main contours of Frazier’s study. According to Anthony Platt, Frazier’s biographer, Frazier sought to correct the bias of existing studies that, in Frazier’s words, “have most often dealt with the pathological side of family life and have become the basis of unwarranted generalization, concerning the character of the whole group.” Indeed, Platt takes direct aim at Moynihan:

Although he [Frazier] regarded instabilities in family life as a tremendous impediment to social and racial equality, he found it almost impossible to separate family from other institutions, and certainly he did not subscribe to the view that disorganized family life was the chief handicap of the black community, no matter how much Burgess, Moynihan, and others attributed this view to him.

Endnote #60 references Moynihan’s claim in the text that “the present generation of Negro youth growing up in the urban ghettos has probably less personal contact with the white world than any generation in the history of the Negro American.” The source: Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot.

These ten endnotes add up to something: Nathan Glazer was the proverbial invisible hand behind the Moynihan Report. Glazer provided much of the source material, if not the inspiration, for what came to be known as “The Moynihan Report.”

Let me be clear: my point is not that Moynihan was guilty of any malfeasance in heavily relying on his coauthor and friend, Nathan Glazer. On the contrary, Moynihan and his team of researchers deserve credit for scrupulously citing their sources. Nevertheless, it is striking how much of the Moynihan Report relies on a single source. Indeed, Glazer says as much in a recent interview for a special issue of Education Next, published by the Hoover Institution, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. To quote Glazer:

Moynihan collaborated with me on the book Beyond the Melting Pot in the early 1960s, an experience that may have done a good deal to orient him to family problems and family structure, which I emphasized to him in explaining the idea of the book. I was at that time strongly influenced by the culture-personality school of anthropology, which placed great weight on early family influences.

The crucial issue is not establishing authorship of the Moynihan Report, but rather assessing its significance in the context in which it was published. With the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, the movement had achieved its legislative objectives. In his famous speech at Howard University in June 1965, President Johnson gave his endorsement to a “next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” and had planned a conference “To Fulfill These Rights.” Once the Moynihan Report was leaked to the press, presumably by Moynihan himself, it became the subject of a furious public controversy that postponed the conference and killed any chance of Johnson’s plan for “a next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” of coming to fruition. Thus, the larger question is whether the Moynihan Report had derailed the civil rights revolution at this critical juncture in its history.

Note: This is based on a longer article in July-August issue of the Boston Review.

Anti-Latino Racism At Its Worst: Trump’s Disquisition On Immigration

In the recent announcement of his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, Donald Trump took the opportunity to hurl an ignorant, Hitleresque tirade against immigrants from Mexico. Trump reached deeply into the White Racial Frame bag and came up with the worst:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Reaction against Trump’s statement was swift and widespread. Much originated in the business community which likes to avoid controversy. Some of the participants were major corporations:

On Monday, NBCUniversal cut all ties with Mr. Trump, saying it would no longer air the pageants or ‘The Apprentice. Televisa, the world’s largest Spanish-language media company, also cut ties. Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, scrapped a television project . . . On Wednesday, Macy’s said it would drop his fashion line, which had been sold in the store since 2004.

An additional loss happened when Mexico decided not to send a contestant to Trump’s Miss Universe pageant. Finally, another setback occurred when two renowned chefs pulled out of Trump’s upcoming luxury hotel in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C:

Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and a partner at the Lambs Club and other Manhattan restaurants, was to open a branch of the National, his brasserie-style restaurant in Midtown, in the new hotel. But on Thursday, he said in a written statement that ‘the recent statements surrounding Mexican immigrants by Donald Trump do not in any way align with my personal core values.’ Mr. Zakarian’s decision to abandon the project, scheduled to open in 2016, follows that of the chef José Andrés. Mr. Andrés has said that Mr. Trump’s statements made ‘it impossible for my company and I to move forward.’

Trump, the billionaire businessman, paid a very high price for his tirade. I am at a loss to understand his machinations. Trump did not make any friends in the Republican Party. John McCain stated: “I disagree with his comments.” Mitt Romney objected to Trump’s comments because of the damage they caused the Republican Party.

The objections of two Florida Republican figures were particularly strong. Marco Rubio labeled Trump’s comments as “extraordinarily ugly, offensive and inaccurate.” Jeb Bush questioned Trump’s motives and added a personal note to his disapproval:

[H]e’s not a stupid guy, so I don’t assume he thinks that every Mexican crossing the border is a rapist. He’s doing this to inflame and incite and to draw attention, which seems to be the organizing principle of his campaign.

Bush went on to say that he took Trump’s comments “personally” (his wife is from Mexico).

Hector V. Barreto, an advisor in all Republican presidential campaigns since 2000, went a step further beyond other Republican figures by exhorting the Republican Party to reject Trump:

The Republican Party is going to have to be much more aggressive in dealing with him . . . And I would expect my party to do that, to call him out. . . Maybe this is our Sister Souljah moment when we say, “He is not a Republican, he does not represent us, he needs to get off the stage.”

Trump encountered severe disapproval in Arizona, a staunch Republican State, to a planned speech in Phoenix. Among the critics were Republican leaders who were not attending the event, John McCain among them. But it was worse than that. The business community, as represented by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, declared Trump persona non grata:

“The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is proud to have played host earlier this year to events featuring three of the leading Republican presidential contenders: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush,” said Glen Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “I expect we will welcome additional candidates from both parties in the fall. Donald Trump will never make the cut. His recent comments on Mexico are not only despicable, but they reflect an individual who, despite his billions, is astonishingly ignorant about Mexico, trade and immigration.”

Although few and far between, some Republican politicians supported Trump. Not surprisingly, Ted Cruz embraced Trump warmly: “I’m proud to stand with Donald Trump.” A second fan was Jan Brewer, former Governor of Arizona who gained infamy by signing one of the most vicious anti-immigrant laws in the United States which among other things legitimated the racial profiling of Latinos. Brewer averred:

I believe that Mr. Trump is kind of telling it like it really, truly is. . . You know, being the governor of (Arizona), the gateway of illegal immigration for six years, we had to deal with a lot of things.

Although apparently many Republican leaders wish that he would disappear, Trump is popular with voters. In two recent polls he placed first, followed by Jeb Bush.

Trump brought down the house when he delivered his standard racist speech in Phoenix on July 12. Although there were some dissenters in the audience, the vast majority of the crowd of over 5000 received him warmly. Donald Trump has made it big recently because his oratory evokes a widespread anti-Mexican hatred, an old part of the White Racial Frame. It is not clear where this will take him, but one thing is sure: he has given racist passion a shot in the arm.

Nothing is Impossible: Black History and Black Futures as a Flag Falls

Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina state capitol. Photo by Adam Anderson.

At dawn on June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome (with support from local activists) scaled the flag pole in front of South Carolina’s courthouse in Charleston. She took down the Confederate flag. Her spotter, James Ian Tyson, dressed as a construction worker, supported her from the ground as she went up and remained as a handful of police officers appeared and surrounded him until she came down. Bree was immediately arrested.

In the continued aftermath of the Charleston massacre, as black communities across the country struggled to hold space for death and disaster (once again), and make sense of another terrorizing attack on their humanity (once again), Bree’s act of defiance (courageous in the extreme and accomplished with the support of local activists) lifted spirits around the country and the world. I know I was waaayyyyyy up (felt blessed). I wasn’t the only one:

By 11 am, the flag was back up–in time to wave over a Confederate flag rally—causing a Ferguson activist to remark on Twitter that Mike Brown was on the ground longer than the flag was off the pole.

By 6 pm, Bree was out of jail, thanks in part to crowdfunded bail support organized by Ferguson Action and Color of Change.

Two days later, her statement, exclusive to Blue Nation Review, included these words:

“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”

Four days later, on July 1, Bree wrote:

On July 10, just shy of two weeks after Bree scaled the pole, South Carolina voted and (with fanfare) finally brought down the Confederate flag.

Actions and symbols matter. My AAIHS colleague Brian Purnell has already outlined the history of the Stars and Bars in the North, as a symbol of racialized segregation and a stubborn determination on behalf white supremacists to deny black people in the United States access to rights, resources, or acknowledge black humanity:

Nowadays, some white Southerners (and black ones too) say that the flag serves as a symbol of their heritage. It honors their ancestors. They argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for slavery; even though that flag flew over armies that marched to create a new nation built to preserve white supremacy and racial slavery.

Eric Foner, interviewed in the wake of the Charleston massacre, pointed to the flag’s history as an expression and avowal of white supremacy:

As you know, and as it has been reported many times, the Confederate flag was only put up on top of the Statehouse in South Carolina in 1962. It was put there as a rebuke to the civil rights movement. It was not a long-standing commemoration of Southern heritage. It was a purely political act to show black people in South Carolina who was in charge.

And Eugene Robinson, son of South Carolina, wrote this week:

And no amount of revisionist claptrap can change the fact that the flag was hoisted at the capitol in Columbia in 1961 and kept flying not to honor some gauzy vision of Southern valor but to resist the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation. The flag meant whites-only schools, whites-only public accommodations, whites-only voter rolls. It represented white power and privilege over subjugated African Americans. It was used by the murderous terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan — and by an ignorant young white supremacist who allegedly took nine innocent lives at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

So there is no question removing the flag from a former center of the Confederacy has meaning.

There is also no question, as my AAIHS colleague Noelle Trent has noted, taking down the flag does not solve racial inequality or prevent black violence:

The act of removing the Confederate flag from various venues and merchandise does not lessen the legacy of racism in the country, and all of the ideologies it would embody. Something must arise in its place. There must be a concerted effort to engage with the country’s history and racial legacy while also progressing forward with substantive change. The substantive change advocated by people like Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshall.

The timeline around Bree Newsome, her action and her arrest, her organized and community funded bail support and subsequent release, her statement on her action and her reflection on the McKinney girl, suggests some of this same tension—triumph immediately followed by resurgence of white supremacist symbology, freedom followed by an acknowledgement of continued violence against black women and girls.

Meanwhile, the state legislature removed the flag with almost no mention of Bree’s magnificent feat, a tiny bit of erasure of black women’s history which we cannot let stand and which allows elected officials across the state, white and black, male and female, to claim the removal of the flag as their success as a state, their racial reconciliation. And it is and it is not.

We remember. Her action mattered. Actions matter. History matters. Black thought matters.

Bree removing the flag in an act of defiance isn’t the same as the state removing the flag. Through her action, and through the actions and organizing of insurgent #blacklivesmatter activists, in Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus, in grassroots historic commemorations and community rituals like Maafa in New Orleans, we find the seed of what “progressing forward with substantive change” looks like.

The first step is what leads to climbing a flag pole. The first step is labor, love, and, as Robin Kelley encouraged at the Stephanie Camp symposium at the University of Washington, theorizing in the communities we reside and alongside activists on the ground. It is showing up as a participant and an actor. It is holding space. It is in acts of radical love and trust, as Kristie Dotson has described. Discussing what it means to do and be a black feminist philosopher, in a text that could read the same for black feminist historians by simply replacing a word, Dotson writes:

“Doing black philosophy, in general, and black feminist philosophy, in particular, requires one to trust that our ancestors have indeed thrown their theoretical production (i.e., their practice and their principles) into this century, as we, by engaging in black theoretical production and beyond, throw ourselves into future centuries.”

Bree’s act, in an antiblack and violent context as the United States in the era of Ferguson and Dylan Roof has proven to be, was as radical an act of love and trust as those of an enslaved woman named California, who posted “amalgamation prints” or abolitionist-related drawings around her cabin. California, too, had “an idea that she is free.” California, too, pissed certain people off because she would do “as she pleases.” And, but for the radical love and daring (re: Dotson) of black female historian Stephanie Camp, in the historical narrative, California’s act of defiance would be usurped by slaveowner prerogative and written out of time as irrelevant, only an isolated case, not enough of a source. In truth, acts of constitutional emancipation have overshadowed actions like hers. But, as with Bree, California’s challenge and risk was also a seed. It both preceded and nurtured the cataclysm that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

The one seems so small in the shadow of the other–abolitionist print material in the hands of the enslaved and the abolition of slavery. But that is because we forget that we deal in impossible things.

As AAIHS colleague Guy Emerson Mount has already noted, black diasporic people have long dealt in impossible things:

For historians, this state of affairs is particularly stupefying to say the least. Even the most cursory study of black intellectual history will show that the thoughts of African Americans, both high and low, on everything from empire, to citizenship, to human rights and especially to scientific conceptions of race have proven themselves to be accurate and prophetic time and time again. As if by clockwork, each generation of black thinkers is dismissed as crazy, irrational, and self-interested only to be redeemed and celebrated a generation later by mainstream America as the visionary vanguards and the moral centers of the nation as a whole. To borrow from Bob Marley borrowing from the Bible: “as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.”

For black women scholars, as educators, organizers, human beings, this has been especially true. “We specialize in the wholly impossible” was a phrase coined by 19th century black educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and returned to use by black women historians Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, Linda Reed as the title of their 1995 reader, We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History. 

Watching the discussion around the Confederate flag occur from New Orleans, seeing covers of the South Carolina Post and Courier circulate on Twitter, knowing on July 9, the day before South Carolina brought their Confederate flag down, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for “a 60 day discussion period on relocating four Confederate monuments across the city,” I’ve been struck by how impossible some things have seemed. Impossible for some to imagine we could just take the flag down, much less that it would be taken down by a young black woman in full climbing gear. Impossible for the city of New Orleans to remove Robert E. Lee from his lofty height on the circle St. Charles Ave, a campaign which has gone on for years, and which seems to be coming full circle in just the last few days. Impossible, for some historians, to believe black people, as philosophers, intellectuals, and stewards of their history for centuries, won’t somehow remember to commemorate the violence against them (and their resistance to it and, where applicable, their triumph over it) if these symbols are taken down.

If these small acts are impossible, no wonder it seems impossible for police to stop killing or to not exist. Impossible for prisons to be abolished and not exist.

Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole to take down a flag that has flown continuously over the South Carolina statehouse since 1961. In 1847, California kept amalgamation prints in her cabin. It is a radical act to trust that these everyday impossibilities, made possible and necessary in black women’s hands, are more than just flashy moments. That they should not be erased from the script and should actually be central and causal to, for example, state officials’ decision to remove the flag. That they should be elevated. That what happened outside the statehouse—Bree and beyond–is crucial to what movement making, community building, and social justice is doing to make the world we want to live in, perhaps more than what happened inside the statehouse. That black women must be centered in all of these acts and actions because they are central. “A voice interrupts, says she.”

And it is an act of black intellectual history and our responsibility to see the long trajectory of actions that seem small, seem impossible, coming to fruition in black women’s hands as knit with what seems like huge and impossible change but is really only just waiting in the wings.

~ This post written by Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State University, originally appeared at the African American History Intellectual Society (AAHIS) blog and is re-posted here with permission.

The “Moynihan Report”: 50 years of Racist Poverty-Shaming

Debates about poverty play out over a heavy sub-text of race. Competing theories assign blame either to moral and cognitive deficiencies of poor people themselves, or to greedy over-lords who unjustly exploit and suppress workers and their families. The class politics are obvious, but arguing the essential unfitness of poor people is aided immeasurably by the rhetoric and logic of racism. If made of somewhat different stuff and recognized as lesser peoples, then both exploitation and the misery they experience seem defensible, or at least unavoidable. Science defeated the hard racial argument in the middle of last century when geneticists determined that race is a biological fiction. But the concept of culture offered a workaround that retained the utility of race by substituting ethnicity. The shift to culture, instead of hard-wired traits, has appealed to liberal “third way” reform thinkers as well as those on the right, forging an odd alliance who find common ground in the hagiography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The “culture of poverty,” a concept ironically made popular by a trio of liberal leftists in the 1960s, asserts that children raised in poverty learn failure from their upbringing and pass it on to their own children, much like inherited physical traits. Shared cultures in “ghetto” communities produce dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior that perpetuate poverty. Oscar Lewis, anthropologist; Michael Harrington, muckraking journalist; and Daniel P. Moynihan, federal policy analyst and future politician, were the three figures who helped ignite a contentious debate early in the War on Poverty, which not coincidentally over-lapped with the Civil Rights movement.

Moynihan’s influence has been most enduring. His 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (PDF), brought this idea to the mass media in the midst of an extended urban uprising in the Watts section of LA. As an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, he issued an official verdict that African American poverty was mired in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from excessive numbers of female headed households. Moynihan conceded that male unemployment unsettles marital stability, but believed that racial disparities in joblessness reflected a family structure that produced uncompetitive workers, implicitly justifying employer discrimination. Growing public unease over urban violence magnified the report’s message that African American culture was pathological.

The leaked report was followed by weeks of coverage and many extreme reactions. The government was launching a campaign to end poverty; an official report defined the problem in terms of gender, race, and culture, deflecting attention from substantive obstacles and economic problems then (and still) confronting African Americans. The report was dissected by critics and supporters alike. Moynihan’s naïve statistical inferences and reliance on limited secondary sources weakened his position and tended to discredit his thesis. Anthropologists and historians published research that contradicted his assertions. Through the 70s and early 80s, the report lost its luster. Moynihan complained periodically about the criticism he had endured over his report, claiming he had been the victim of ideological enemies on the left. It could have ended there.

The 1980s was a period of revanchism against the Great Society, backlash against what were deemed excessively liberal conditions in the preceding two decades. Under Reagan, Sen. Moynihan opposed the new harsh policies, but his earlier ideas about black poverty gained renewed support, especially from right wing commentators like Charles Murray. Also included, however, was liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson who praised Moynihan’s foresight, excoriated his critics, and instated culture into his quest to understand poverty. Wilson framed inner city poverty as the home of the “underclass” where black middle class flight had left a zone bereft of upstanding two parent families, a cultural sink lacking effective norms. Faced with wrenching industrial changes, their defective culture worsened the problems — a combination of cultural and structural causes, suggesting possible partial solutions addressing bad culture rather than unfair economics. This approach resonated with many in the Republican administration, but it also drew interest from a widening circle of academics and liberal policy analysts.

In 2007, the American Academy of Social and Political Science established an annual award in Moynihan’s name for public intellectuals of note. Their journal published a special issue titled “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” with largely praiseful articles and missing some noted critics. The Urban Institute borrowed the title for their own conference and publication [[http://www.issuelab.org/resource/moynihan_report_revisited_the]] that was also mainly an homage to Moynihan’s allegedly prescient contributions. In 2010 Herbert Gans, a sociologist who had written an early response to the report, revisited it in light of all the new praise for its importance. He came to the same conclusion he had 45 years earlier; it was not good research or a credible argument. He praised Moynihan’s work as a senator, but not as a scholar or early policy analyst.

Nevertheless, Moynihan’s fame as a social prophet has continued to grow and his ideas arguably have helped steer scarce poverty funding into neoliberal programs aimed at teaching poor people about the virtues of middle class culture, or forcibly displacing them for their own good. And we have spent billions more incarcerating and punishing non-violent poor people of color based on faulty perceptions of crime and risk. Both critics and supporters credit the Moynihan Report for helping shape the policy environment that ended welfare and anointed the view that poverty, race, and crime are all tied together. Alice O’Connor’s book, Poverty Knowledge, offers an incisive analysis, as described in my recent book, Blaming the Poor.

In the United States poverty and race are frequently connected in the mind’s eye, in what Joe Feagin has called the white racial frame, where facts disappear in the mist of centuries long racial conditioning, like the fact that “welfare queens” in the days before welfare was ended were overwhelmingly white. Current revivals of Moynihan’s haplessly racist caricature of immoral black single mothers and their dangerous teenaged sons disregard the fact that single motherhood has soared among all ethnic groups, especially among people with low incomes, a predictable response to dire economic conditions. It is not cultural, but structural; not racial but a reflection of class inequality and material scarcity. Moynihan was fond of saying that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Moynihan’s sloppy research and undeservedly popular conclusion illustrates that caution very well.

Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of South Florida

The Epidemic of Colorblindness

There is an epidemic in our country. Other epidemics like obesity and AIDS create injustice in the body, but this one creates injustice in our society and the ways in which we relate to one another. We have a name for this disease: colorblindness.

What are the symptoms of colorblindness? The most notable is the refusal to admit that the color of a person’s skin affects that person’s opportunities in America. Other symptoms include a callous rationalization of racial violence, a denial of one’s own racial prejudices, a minimization of ubiquitous bigotry, and, in extreme cases, a belief that race is a personal choice.

Let’s take a look at some recent cases of this rampant disease. Several weeks ago, Tahera Ahmad ordered a can of soda on a United Airlines flight. For sanitary reasons, she requested an unopened can, but she was denied. “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?” Unfortunately, no. This was a symptom of America’s insidious disease.

In Ahmad’s words,

This isn’t about me and a soda can. It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.

That systemic injustice is influenced in part by color-blindness, which allows the privileged to overlook or even to justify their most horrific prejudices. On this United Airlines flight, nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” and said that Ahmad “would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.” How can anyone claim that racist institutions can be relegated to a “dark chapter in America’s history” when blatant discrimination like this occurs on a major American airline? The answer is simple: the narrative of colorblindness states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.

It appears that United Airlines has a bad case of colorblindness. It is an institution and its top priority is not social progress; it is self-preservation. In their apology to Tahera Ahmad, representatives of United did not mention anything about discrimination. They did not mention racism or Islamophobia. For them, it was a matter of rudeness and bad customer service. They simply did not see that being non-White and Muslim has a painful effect on American citizens.

Another incident of colorblindness was highlighted in some of the responses to the recent shooting in South Carolina. The culprit, a young White man named Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine Black worshippers during Bible study. To give you some background, by Roof’s own account, he was not raised in a racist home or educated in a racist school; he was a racist by choice. After reading racist texts about the “Jewish problem” in 1940s Europe, Roof accepted a racist ideology and wrote his own racist manifesto, in which he systematically described the unique failings of everyone who was not White. This racism and nothing else motivated his murder of nine Blacks in a historically Black church.

The reality is clear, but America’s severe case of colorblindness produced an incomplete and distorted response from its politicians. Lindsey Graham (SC-R) claimed that Roof was just “one of these whacked out kids” and “obviously twisted.” Jeb Bush called it “tragic,” and Rick Perry called it “unspeakable.” Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee sent their heartfelt prayers via tweet, and Rick Santorum called the event “an attack on religious liberty.” Ben Carson called it an act of “hate” and “intolerance.” To Donald Trump, it was “incomprehensible.” To Hillary Clinton, just “heartbreaking.”

But what is truly tragic, unspeakable, whacked out, twisted, incomprehensible, and heartbreaking is the fact that only one presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), responded to this undeniably racial attack by bringing up race. He had the sense to describe the incident as a “reminder of the ugly stain of racism on our country” and of the fact that we are “far from eradicating racism.” Thank you, Bernie.

As for the other future leaders of our country, it appears that they, too, have been infected and debilitated by a resistant strain of color-blindness. They refuse to admit that the color of a person’s skin still affects that person’s opportunities in America. They rationalize racial violence as religious intolerance, mental disturbance, or unexplainable hatred. They deny the terrifying strength of racial prejudices. They minimize the role of bigotry. It seems they are blind to the racial realities of our times, and they are of no help to the non-Whites who still struggle, on a daily basis, for equality, freedom, and justice.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College. He said:

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through…tireless efforts and persistent work… [and] without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.

The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the epidemic of colorblindness incapacitates us. So long as our government and corporations deny their daily institutional complicity in the racial violence we see nearly every day in America, we will remain trapped in a cycle of oppression and denial.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. King. Colorblindness is like any other epidemic. It will not eradicate itself over time. It needs treatment, and it needs it now. Every day that we spend waiting for a cure is another day that the disease of color-blindness has triumphed. What should you do? A better question might be, What can you do? Because you should do everything you can.

First, it is essential to write your representatives and demand that they publicly admit the persistent problem of racism in America. Demand that they serve the diverse body of voters who elected them—not just the interests of Whites or otherwise privileged people. Demand that they open the political discussion to include race and that they address the shambles in which America’s current racial understanding lies.

Second, talk about race. Have earnest discussions, and follow them up with action. Remember that a thousand mile march begins with a single step. Let’s take a step today.

Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July Fourth

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

 

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In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.